Interview with Frances Tiafoe on the US Open, Serena Williams and making tennis cool

Wimbledon marked a career high for Frances Tiafoe. He launched into week two, reaching the knockout stages for the first time at the historic British tournament. The young American, nicknamed ‘Big Foe’, plays aggressively, with an unconventional forehand and big serve, which kept him going until he finally lost to Belgium’s David Goffin in a match which lasted almost five hours.

He feeds on the energy of engaged fans – after winning a point in a game, he moved on to shaking hands with fans in the crowd. As Sports Illustratedby Jon Wertheim NotedTiafoe “has a singular ability [to] harnessing the energy and affection of the crowd in a way that elevates his tennis.

Playing some of the best tennis of his career, Tiafoe is happy to be back in the United States to wrap up the summer. “Honestly, I’ve played good tennis. I’ve lost tough, close matches this summer, but I’m at the peak of my career. Since Wimbledon, I’ve won some really good matches, beating guys that I follow. supposed to beat. It was good,” he says. City & Country on FaceTime.

Tiafoe celebrates after winning a match at the 2022 Citi Open in Washington, DC

The Washington Post//Getty Images

The hard-court swing between Wimbledon and the US Open – when the men’s tour stops in Atlanta, Washington DC, Montreal and Cincinnati – is his favorite part of the year, especially in front of American crowds. “I’m used to playing on hard courts, and if things aren’t going well, you’re close to home,” he says.

Tiafoe calls from the locker room at the Cincinnati Open, a day after beating top-seeded Italian Matteo Berrettini in the first round. Although he likes to win, it is not his main goal while playing tennis.

“My goal has always been to support and take care of my family,” he says. “When I was younger my goal was to be world number one and do all that, but now it’s like I want to have a career and when I’m done I want to know that everyone’s take care of everything. Obviously it’s going to be to win the big ones, but that’s not the specific goal. I just want to do my best and take care of everyone around me. Because then I would say which I succeeded.

Tiafoe seems wiser than her 24 years. The 6-foot-2 athlete was born in Maryland, the son of Sierra Leonean immigrants who fled civil war in their home country. His father, Constant Tiafoe, got a job as a construction worker to build the Junior Tennis Champions Center (JTCC) in College Park, Maryland. After it was built, Tiafoe Sr. was hired as an on-site caretaker and given a small office to live in at JTCC – and he brought his twins with him.

“My dad literally helped build the place,” Tiafoe recalls, “He asked the CEO to [JTCC], ‘Can I bring my twins here to be in a better place for school?’ In the beginning, it was good for us to be there, to be in a good environment for school and around different children while he was working. Then obviously we learned about tennis, being around him so much.

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A photo of Frances and Franklin as toddlers sits on a shelf behind tennis trophies in their home.

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Tiafoe and her twin brother, Franklin, were raised at the tennis center, and grew up sharing a massage table for a bed. They quickly turned to the sport that surrounded them. “We used our racquets and kicked the ball into the wall. We started playing after school programs,” he recalls.

At 12, he knew he wanted to play tennis professionally, even though his parents wanted him to go to college and graduate. At 17, he took an “informed risk”, turned professional and made his Grand Slam debut. In three years, he had won his first title. This year he reached a career high of 24th in the world, and he’s currently the 2nd highest ranked American, which doesn’t even take into account his deep run at Wimbledon. (Due to the banning of Russian and Belarusian players from the tournament, both the men’s and women’s tours stripped Wimbledon of ranking points.)

The ‘Big Three’ – Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic – have dominated men’s tennis for the past two decades, but their grip on the sport has loosened recently. They are more likely to only play the biggest tournaments, like Grand Slams, and even then injuries and COVID vaccination policies have left the draw more open than it usually has been. (Djokovic, in particular, will not be at the US Open because he is not vaccinated.)

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Tiafoé in 2021.

Nathan Stirk//Getty Images

“The game opens,” says Tiafoe. “Success is when opportunity meets preparation. Guys are just prepared and ready to seize the opportunity that comes their way. Anyone can win these big events. got guys cemented like, ‘ok, i’m the one [to beat].’ We haven’t had that yet, which is cool. The game needs it for tennis fans to get used to new faces.

In American men’s tennis, in particular, Tiafoe is one of many Americans to rise through the ranks, alongside Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul and Maxime Cressy. “It’s great, I think that’s what’s going to keep longevity,” he says of his American cohort. “It’s cool to see guys you grew up with playing good tennis, and we’re all in the top 30. The guys are playing well, beating the best guys in the world. Everyone is having a heroic week every week.

Although American players don’t necessarily recognize it, he says, “everyone has so much respect for each other. And so happy for each other.

Tiafoe’s rise in American tennis is all the more remarkable because the sport, historically, has been unwelcoming to people of color. It was a sport characterized by its whiteness and richness; not one for the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone. The Williams sisters were key in changing that perception of tennis, and Tiafoe is part of a new generation that has helped change it even further. Making tennis more diverse and representative is one of Tiafoe’s goals.

“People don’t understand that tennis is cool, do they? said Tiafoe. “People think it’s like this prissy, stuck up [sport], and it’s like, no, man! You have guys with a ton of different personalities, and people don’t realize how physical it is and how hard it is to play good tennis week in and week out.

He continues, “A lot of guys from the NBA and NFL that I’m friends with, they come and watch me play and they’re like, ‘Man, tennis is crazy! Like, I don’t know how you do that. But I just think people have that image of it—and I think if people get away with it [mindset]I think tennis would improve [rep].”

Perhaps more eyes will be on tennis this year at the US Open, in part due to the impending retirement of one of tennis’s greatest players, Serena Williams. Like Williams, Tiafoe feeds off the energy of the New York crowds at the US Open.

“New York is different,” he says with a big smile on his face. “Night on Ashe is so special, I think there are no words to describe what playing Night on Ashe means to me. It’s the biggest tennis court, the atmosphere is wild and it’s is for people like me. I really take that into account.

2017 United States Open Tennis Championships

Tiafoe’s first match against Arthur Ashe was against Roger Federer in 2017.

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For the past two years, Tiafoe has qualified for the round of 16 at the US Open. Playing at Arthur Ashe Stadium on the US Open marquee court is a huge honor for American players and carries emotional weight, especially for Black American players. The stadium is named after Arthur Ashe, the first men’s US Open winner in 1968 and the first black American to win a Grand Slam tournament. (Althea Gibson became the first black woman a decade earlier at Roland Garros 1956.)

Ashe opened in 1997 and in the 25 years since, Serena Williams has won the US Open six times. His victories solidified the court as witnesses to some of the greatest moments in tennis history. Tiafoe is still processing the news of Serena Williams’ retirement; after she announced it, he took to her Instagram to share that she will always be his “big sister.” (Williams has called Tiafoe his “brother” on his Instagramtoo.)

“Serena means everything to me. Especially in the black community and around the world, she’s an icon. I don’t think I would do what I do without her, to be honest with you,” Tiafoe says. ‘she and Venus have done over the years, competing in Grand Slams, everything they’ve overcome in a predominantly white, dominant sport for so many years…’ he trails off. It’s so admirable.”

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Williams and Tiafoe are playing mixed doubles at the 2019 Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia.

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Tiafoe also knows his prowess on the pitch firsthand. The pair are known to practice together, including most recently at the Eastbourne International Tournament in June, and Tiafoe played doubles with the two Williams sisters; with Venus at Wimbledon in 2019 and with Serena at the Hopman Cup in Australia earlier that year. “Being able to call [the Williams sisters] friends, not even colleagues – calling them friends is something really special,” Tiafoe shares.

Tiafoe is acutely aware of what this US Open means, especially when it comes to Williams’ impending retirement. “The US Open will always be crazy,” says Tiafoe. “It’s just going to be crazy. Obviously, regardless of when the GOAT retired, in 2021, people were still hesitant to do things. The Open was packed last year, but I think now, with COVID pretty much behind us, it’s going to be crazy. (Ticket prices for this year’s tournament have jumped ahead of Williams’ final games.)

“And with Serena’s announcement, I think it’s the perfect storm,” he continues. “I just can’t wait.”

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